“Plants are shaped by cultivation and men by education… We are born weak, we need strength; we are born totally unprovided, we need aid; we are born stupid, we need judgment. Everything we do not have at our birth and which we need when we are grown is given us by education.”
-Jean Jacques Rousseau
The Irony of Formal Schooling
When I was younger, I suspect the educational system was a lot similar to how it has been the past 5,000 years. Lots of rote memorizing of rules, words, lists. Lots of repetition in class and lots of writing. Lots of stuff that meant nothing to me and had no connection to my brain, interests, or any of my aspirations.
The biggest kick in the pants was that they told me to memorize all this stuff and never taught me how to do it. School never provided me with the tools to learn, but instead told me to learn.
I Was A Little Dumbstruck
I mean come on, people have been formally attending schools for… 5,000 years? And people have formally been passing on knowledge via teaching… since the dawn of time? Perhaps that’s where everything has changed — the shift from the oral tradition to the time when writing was widely available.
But during all of this time, nobody figured out a way to learn more, faster? Highly unlikely. So that’s where I set about researching some of the roots of learning techniques. As it turns out, the oldest that I could find come from the oral tradition.
Every Good Boy Does Fine – All Cows Eat Grass
A common story that books on memory techniques like to begin with is that of Simonides of Ceos:
“That proud tradition began, at least according to legend, in the fifth century B.C. with the poet Simonides of Ceos standing in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse in Thessaly. As the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: He remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he had made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it had nevertheless left a durable impression upon his memory. From that simple observation, Simonides reputedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory.”
–Moonwalking with Einstein, p. 93
So Simonides essentially remembered a huge number of guests at this banquet hall that collapsed. Sounds like a pretty sweet party trick. Sound like an even better trick to use for university, work, or simply learning a new skill (including languages).
The Tools I Was Never Given
Right now I’m going to jump into the meat of it, and give you guys an intro on the two mnemonic techniques I use the most frequently, in order of frequency. Many of them can be found in The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. This was my first resource in re-learning these old skills.
The Link Method
The link method is a way of memorizing all sorts of information by converting them into pictures, and then associating the pictures to each other. The human brain is particularly good at spatial memory, not temporal, and thus is visually based. Think about it: if I told you to close your eyes and then I said “tiger,” would you see a tiger or the letters T I G E R? You’d see a tiger obviously.
Useful for: Memorizing lists, long words and any sort of information or processes
The Method: Say for example you want to remember a shopping list. We have ten items: carrots, Aunt Jemima Syrup, frosted flakes, frozen waffles, milk, chicken, gatorade, chips, peanut butter and raisins.
Start with the first and begin to associate it with the second: Carrots and Aunt Jemima Syrup. Here’s how I (for example) would turn them into tangible images that you can associate with each other. Imagine a carrot acting like a mime pouring syrup over his body.
Got it? You have a carrot miming and pouring syrup on his body. Carrot. Aunt Jemima. Associated with each other.
Next we have frosted flakes and frozen waffles. Imagine that suddenly a snowstorm of huge frosted flakes erupts, and they stick all over the carrot covered in syrup. Enormous waffles wearing winter clothes come over to start shoveling the snow up.
Got those together? A snowstorm of frosted flakes erupts, and people-sized waffles come out to shovel it.
Important Things to Remember:
- Make the images ridiculous and totally extra-ordinary (you won’t remember them otherwise)
- Run the whole line through your head once you are done to make sure the links you made were good enough
The Link + Key Thought Method
A great suggestion from The Memory Book.
Useful for: reading materials, any sort of notebook or class notes and speeches.
The Method: You are already familiar with the link method, except now you are trying to remember a large body of research or material.
First you would go through your class notes or your speech materials, and pick out the keywords. For example: Photosynthesis, Kreb’s Cycle, Glucose, Carbon Monoxide, Mammalia, etc. Apply the link method above to associate these together.
A Speech: Pick key parts of the speech. E.g. you are giving a eulogy and you want people to remember 3 reasons why John Smith was a great man:
- His incredible heart as a firefighter
- His unusual methods of teaching as a high school teacher
- His inability to give up on his children
You’d then associate firefighter to teacher to children. Then you can remember the pieces in between easier.
Two Extremely Practical Uses of Memory Techniques
- Remembering faces
- Learning a foreign language
Remembering a Face
- Pick a distinguishing facial feature on the person’s face. Usually a large nose, receding hairline, scar or birth make, or other obvious thing that comes in your mind will do.
- Associate it with their name, using the link method.
E.g. You meet a John with a big nose. I would imagine the guy using his huge nose to plumb the toilet (a john). Immediately once you see his nose again, there is no way you will forget that image. John will immediately come to mind.
Accelerated Learning of a Foreign Language
People seem to think learning a foreign language is difficult. I’m not sure where that originated, just like I’m not sure where the “children learn a foreign language faster than adults” myth originated.
In any case, these are some techniques you can definitely use to improve the rate at which you learn another language. I know they work because I used them to help me learn Chinese.
Learning Another Language
Some great suggestions from Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas again:
Examples in French:
- To remember père (Father): the word sounds like “Pear” in English, so you could picture a huge pear being your father
- To remember pont (bridge): See yourself punting a bridge instead of a football
- To remember pamplemousse (grapefruit): picture huge pimples on a moose, except each pimple is a grapefruit
Time Consuming? Not Really.
At first they may seem time-consuming, and that may be true at the beginning (as any skill is at the beginning). However, the time you can and will save is amazing, and I can’t forsee any time in the near future when I will go back to rote memorization of anything. Making wiser use of your time frees more time for the things you love.
Perfect practice makes perfect.